Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March Madness Indeed

All you really need to know about how extraordinary this NCAA men's basketball tournament has been is that there is a team in the Final Four whose fans were actually heard to chant "We Want Butler! We Want Butler!"

Pretty amazing stuff.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Harlan Coben is the master of writing a type of book that is one of my favorite genres - the "mystery that is rooted in something that happened long ago." How he churns these out on such a regular basis is beyond me. For the past several years he's divided his time between stand-alone thrillers of this type, and novels featuring his long-time characters, Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood.

I'm not sure that "Caught" is his best stand-alone, but if you're looking for the proverbial "page turner that you can't put down," you could do a lot worse. Another thing that Coben does very well is to hook the reader in the very first chapter, and "Caught" is no exception. In that very first chapter, we're introduced to Dan Mercer, a social worker dedicated to helping young kids. By the end of that chapter, Mercer has been caught in a made-for-television sting designed to capture sexual predators.

Along the way, we're introduced to the "investigative reporter" who comes to find that nothing is quite as it seems, a young girl whose disappearance is somehow linked to Mercer but no one can quite figure out how, a couple of veteran, somewhat plodding but competent detectives trying to make sense of it all, and a group of unemployed fathers who gather each morning at the local Starbucks and try to pretend that their lives are the same as they've always been. The book also has brief cameos for Lockwood and another Coben favorite, Hester Crimstein, defense lawyer extraordinaire.

It's an entertaining if somewhat nerve-wracking journey, and of course, all of the answers are rooted in something that happened long ago.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The First 7-Song Perfect Playlist Contest!

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the very first “7-Song Perfect Playlist” contest!

The question of the day, hour, and minute is: how are the following seven songs connected?

Good luck, and good fun.

“Gimme Shelter,” The Rolling Stones

“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes

“Daniel,” Elton John

“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon

“Ain’t Got No Home,” Clarence “Frogman” Henry

“Comfortably Numb,” Pink Floyd

“Nightmare,” Artie Shaw

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Baseball Project: Two for Two

The Baseball Project began the title of their debut album with “Volume 1,” but I have to wonder whether they really expected there to be a “Volume 2.” After all, how many good songs can one band write about baseball?

As it turns out, at least enough to fill up two great albums. Because “Volume 2: High and Inside” is just as good as the terrific first edition, and it may find an even larger audience, since several of the songs focus on recent or current players. “Panda and the Freak” is sure to get heavy airplay at AT&T Park this season, while fans of the Mariners are sure to hear “Ichiro Goes to the Moon” blaring out of the P.A. system at Safeco Field. In the Midwest, you might hear “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” at Target Field, or “Pete Rose Way” outside the Great American Ballpark. Back east, you might even hear “The Straw That Stirs the Drink” at Yankee Stadium, particularly if Mr. October is in the ballpark.

There are three songs on the album about Boston Red Sox players, but you’re not likely to hear any of them played at Fenway Park anytime soon, mostly because it would be too painful. But they’re three of the best songs on the album – “Buckner’s Bolero” is an amazing account of events leading up to one of the most infamous plays in the history of the game, a play that the triumphs of 2004 and 2007 have probably not erased from the memory banks of Bosox fans. “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son)” is a tragedy, about a player – Tony Conigliaro – who might have been great, had his eyesight not been destroyed by a fastball that collided with his eye. “Twilight of My Career” is another tragedy, but of a different type – it tells the story of Roger Clemens and his great years for the Yankees after the Red Sox let him go and wished him well “in the twilight of his career” However, as we now know, the Clemens story does not have a happy ending, so you might actually hear some Sox fans silently clapping at the end of this one.

There really isn’t a bad song on the album – other highlights include “1976,” about the magical summer of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, and “Fair Weather Fans,” in which each of the band members tells the story of how they’ve struggled in dealing with new teams in new cities as they’ve made moves during the course of their lives. But for me the album’s masterpiece is “Here Lies Carl Mays,” which tells the story of the pitcher who threw the pitch that killed Ray Chapman – who was, as the album liner notes point out, the only player to die directly from injuries that occurred during a major league game. The song carries an elegiac tone, as it weaves a sad story:

It’s so peaceful here in the Riverview graveyard
And sometimes it felt that way out in the green ball field.

But life can take a turn right before your eyes

And you know you’ll never be the same again.

The band members of The Baseball Project are Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Scott McCaughey, and Peter Buck. Buck, the guitarist for R.E.M., is by far the best known, but it is Wynn and McCaughey who handle almost all of the songwriting duties. Each of them has a fine eye and ear for detail, and the ability to turn a nifty phrase. For example, Wynn nails Reggie Jackson like no one before him, with these great lines:

I’m a card carrying member of Mensa
I’ve got MVP trophies on my credenza

Go ask the Daily News, they’ll tell you what I can do

Mr. October’s got a little something for you

With two terrific albums under their belt, you have to wonder how long this can go on. All I know right now is that I can’t wait for Volume 3.

"Paul" - Another Winner From Pegg and Frost

“Paul” may not be quite up to the standards of the two previous Simon Pegg-Nick Frost comedies (Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz), but it is a very funny movie that treats its subjects – two colossal sci-fi nerds, and the alien they stumble upon during a trek through the “UFO sites” of the southwest – with care and respect.

Pegg and Frost play two sci-fi fanboys from England who are on the trip of their lives – to Comic-Con in San Diego. After they’ve soaked in all there is to see at the convention, they hit the road in order to check out the most famous and most mysterious sites that the southwest has to offer – places like Roswell, New Mexico. Tooling along in their RV, they come across a real live alien, one who’s been on Earth since 1949 and is itching to get home. The alien, voiced by Seth Rogen, has picked up a lot of human habits over the years, most prominently smoking (both conventional and non-conventional weeds) and swearing.

Of course, everyone is after them – the mysterious “Men in Black” (one is a typically deadpan Jason Bateman, another is SNL’s Bill Hader), a couple of good ol’ boys who are looking to avenge the havoc the boys' RV wreaked on their truck, and a bible-thumping crazy old man, looking to get his daughter back. The daughter, played by SNL’s Kristen Wiig, is converted along the way from a chip off the paternal block to someone who quickly develops a liking, with Paul’s help, to the aforementioned vices. I usually can’t stand Wiig, but she’s quite funny here. Once the group is all together the movie becomes a fairly standard chase picture, but with enough funny bits along the way to make the trip a memorable and amusing one.

It’s probably fair to say that one’s enjoyment of “Paul” is proportional to each viewer’s own sense of sci-fi geekdom. There are plenty of nods to classic sci-fi moments – a laugh-out loud funny re-enactment of Kirk’s battle against the Gorn, and a classic moment featuring a hillbilly band playing the “Star Wars Cantina” theme – but if you’re not familiar with such things, your enjoyment of “Paul” will be lessened.

I guess that means I’m a geek – because I thought they were great. In short, it’s another winner for Pegg and Frost.

Friday, March 25, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Simon & Garfunkel

I normally try to find live performances of these songs, but in this instance providing anything other than the original is a disservice to the greatness of the record. And besides, the best video I could find was from the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, and their performance of the song at that concert was remarkably mannered.

When this song came out in 1970, I didn't like it - didn't understand its appeal at all. But at some point, it finally clicked. I think it was Dave Marsh who said something along the lines of "Yes, it's crooning. But it's the song that made crooning matter."

For me, the lyrics are less important than the music. But it's a pretty remarkable recording, no matter how you cut it.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water," Simon & Garfunkel. The #1 song in America this week in 1970.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Low Anthem Teaser

A couple of years ago I picked The Low Anthem's "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin" as my top album of the year.

Their new one, "Smart Flesh," has been out for a few weeks now. While I'm not yet prepared to say that it's better than the debut, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an extraordinary album.

And this is a wonderful performance. I especially like the point in the video (around 3:41) where the kids start listening.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rosanne Cash...at Folsom

In May 1955, Rosanne Cash was born, the first daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto.

In January 1968, Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison, resulting in a live album that was successful both as a piece of music, and as an historical artifact. It revitalized his career.

In 1973, Rosanne toured with her father. When she expressed ignorance of a number of songs that he was suggesting she sing, he wrote down a list of 100 essential country songs on a pad of legal size paper, and told her that this was her education.

In 2009, Rosanne released “The List,” an album containing some of the songs on that list which her father gave her so many years before.

And last night, Rosanne returned to Folsom, where she performed at the brand spanking new Three Stages theater on the campus of Folsom Lake College.

Performing in Folsom was obviously an emotional experience for Rosanne; she choked up on a couple of occasions during the show, once when she talked about having visited Folsom Prison that day, where she and her husband John Leventhal told stories and sang songs to some of the inmates.

I have a small confession to make – I was a big fan of Rosanne Cash for a long time before I became of big fan of Johnny Cash. That’s entirely on me – of course, I always enjoyed the JC songs that got played on the radio, like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” and “A Boy Named Sue” and “I Walk the Line.” But my musical tastes started to expand almost exactly at the time Rosanne hit the scene, with “Right or Wrong” in 1979. From the very start, it was apparent that her talent, her voice, and her songwriting acumen would result in a long-lasting career. And when “Seven Year Ache” hit the airwaves in 1981, I knew I’d be a fan for life. Someday I may get around to creating my own list of 100 essential songs, and there’s no doubt in my mind that “Seven Year Ache” will be on it.

Three Stages is an intimate venue, with a capacity of 850. That was the perfect setting for last night’s show, which featured Rosanne on vocals, guitar and piano, joined only by her husband John Leventhal on guitar, and by her daughter Chelsea Crowell on guitar and vocals. Because Rosanne is suffering from a “singer’s node,” she took a short break at one point, allowing Chelsea to take center stage and sing two of her own songs, plus a Carter Family chestnut.

But the night belonged to Rosanne, and if her voice cracked on one or two occasions, it only added to the character of the evening’s performance. The lion’s share of the songs came from “The List,” including “Motherless Child,” “Sea of Heartbreak” (with Leventhal playing “the role of Bruce Springsteen”), “500 Miles,” “Long Black Veil,” “Girl from the North Country,” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” There were also four selections from “Black Cadillac,” “Runaway Train” by request, and of course, the immortal “Seven Year Ache.”

I should also compliment Leventhal, whose guitar playing was notable and impeccable, and quite impressive – the perfect accompaniment to Rosanne’s voice.

And in the end, I’m just a huge fan. Rosanne Cash has been in my personal pantheon for a long time. Being able to say that I heard her sing “Seven Year Ache” in person is one of the highlights of my music-listening life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Small Moments In a Big Film: "Inception"

I watched “Inception” again today, for what I think was the fourth time. It’s a big movie filled with big moments – the “dream is collapsing” sequence at the beginning; the “world is turning” fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the two security guards in the second-level dream as the van cascades down a hillside in the first-level dream; the juxtaposition between the three dream levels as the van descends into the water in the first level, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt attempts to “drop” his subjects in a zero-gravity world in the second level, and an avalanche careens down the mountain in the third; the wonderful sequence where Ellen Page escapes from limbo by throwing herself out a high-rise window and then makes her way up through the three levels of dreams…there are more than that, but those are notable for their sheer audacity alone.

But there are also some wonderful “small” moments in the film – two in particular stand out. One is where Cillian Murphy clasps his dying father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) hand as he opens the safe and sees what is inside; and the second is where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) holds Mal (Marion Cotillard) and explains to her that they really did grow old together, and then finally lets her go. There are others sprinkled throughout “Inception,” and they lend the film its emotional resonance – Gordon-Levitt giving Ariadne a kiss, the way that Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy are always needling each other; and the great penultimate sequence where all those on the flight are gathering their luggage and give each other a sly, knowing look.

Great stuff; great movie.

Joe on Barry

It should come as no surprise that Joe Posnanski has weighed in with a rational, well-considered piece on the Barry Bonds trial.

Amazing stat, from the piece:

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1972 and 1986:
1. George Foster
2. Jim Rice
3. Dave Kingman
4. Mike Schmidt

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1987 and 1994:
1. Mark McGwire
2. Juan Gonzalez
3. Cecil Fielder
4. Kevin Mitchell
5. Andre Dawson
6. George Bell

Players who hit hit more than 45 home runs between 1995 and 2010:
1. Alex Rodriguez (5 times)
2. Sammy Sosa (5)
3. Mark McGwire (4)
4. Ken Griffey (4)
5. Barry Bonds (4)
6. Ryan Howard (3)
7. Albert Pujols (3)
8. Jim Thome (3)
9. Albert Belle (3)
10. Prince Fielder (2)
11. David Ortiz (2)
12. Rafael Palmeiro (2)
13. Juan Gonzalez (2)
14. Jose Bautista
15. Carlos Pena
16. Alfonso Soriano
17. Derrek Lee
18. Andruw Jones
19. Adam Dunn
20. Adrian Beltre
21. Todd Helton
22. Shawn Green
23. Luis Gonzalez
24. Troy Glaus
25. Jeff Bagwell
26. Greg Vaughn
27. Vinny Castilla
28. Jose Canseco
29. Larry Walker
30. Andres Galarraga
31. Brady Anderson

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Netflix Catchup

Brief takes:

An Education. A very well done period piece set in early 1960s England, with a great lead performance from Carey Mulligan, a 22-year old actress who is quite believable as Jenny, a precocious 16-year old. Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber with a script by Nick Hornby, the movie is a sharp observation of, and commentary on, the sexual mores of the day. The supporting cast, which includes Alfred Molina as Jenny’s strict father and Peter Sarsgaard as the slick “man of the world” stranger who becomes her suitor, is terrific. Jenny learns a lot of lessons over the course of the movie’s two hours, the most important of which is probably that a young English girl in her position at that time didn’t have many options, or many opportunities at a second chance. It’s well done, insightful, and entertaining.

Frida. When you see a film by Julie Taymor, you know it’s going to be a visual feast. “Frida” is no exception, which is only fitting since it tells the story of an artist and the colorful life she led. Not knowing much about Frida Kahlo’s life, I enjoyed it a great deal, and learned quite a bit. Salma Hayek is great in the title role, and Alfred Molina (again!) is very good as Diego Rivera. I’d also single out Roger Rees, quite good as Frida’s German father, and Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky. All told, the film is an entertaining mix of history and bohemian artistry, and well worth the effort.

Invictus. I probably shouldn’t even comment on this one since I floated in and out of wakefulness during the film’s last 30 minutes or so, but I did enjoy the parts I saw. I think I’d pay just to hear Morgan Freeman read dialogue for two hours, so watching him play Nelson Mandela was a treat. The movie doesn’t give Matt Damon a whole lot to do, but he looks convincing as a rugby player. And I’m sure this mini-review has failed to do the film justice.

Friday, March 18, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Neil Young

I suspect that, for many people my age, their introduction to the world of Neil Young was through this song. But little did we know at the time that "Heart of Gold" barely scratched the surface of his ability.

He's been criticized for not being Bob Dylan, but that's hardly a fair comparison. Bottom line? He's one of the greatest, most versatile artists of the past 50 years.

And if I'm not mistaken, this was his only #1 hit.

"Heart of Gold," Neil Young, the #1 song this week in 1972.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chip Off The Old Block?

I would be remiss if I didn't link to Son #1's first post about his Top Albums of All Time.

We don't exactly have the same tastes in music, but it's the writing that counts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"The Girl Who Played With Fire"

It took me a lot longer to finish this book than it should have, but I’m not sure that’s entirely my fault. It’s a good book, and once it gets going, contains all of the requisite elements of an expert thriller – in fact, it becomes an expert thriller. But boy oh boy, it sure takes a long time to get going. This is a 600-page book that I think would have been much stronger as a 450-page book; perhaps even a 400-page book.

“The Girl Who Played With Fire” is different in tone than “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and the primary focus shifts from Mikael Blomkvist to Lisbeth Salander, which is only appropriate given that Salander is the character who gives the books their titles. Blomkvist plays a key role, but there’s little doubt that his parts of the book are less interesting, less vital, than those featuring Salander.

There’s a lot going on, but the plot boils down to the following – two of Blomkvist’s colleagues have been murdered, on the eve of publishing a book (him) and a thesis (her) exposing a prostitution trafficking ring, and the prominent men who are a part of that ring. The murder weapon has Salander’s fingerprints on it, and was also used to kill Nils Bjurman, the former “guardian” who will be familiar to everyone who read the trilogy’s first installment.

Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse, with the police trying to find Salander, Blomkvist trying to prove her innocence, and the real killers also trying to “close the loop.” Along the way we meet several interesting and entertaining characters, including a boxer with a soft spot for Salander, a psychopathic killer who happens to be a giant who can’t feel pain, and the mysterious Zalachenko – the proverbial man with a past behind it all. And of course, the brilliant Salander is almost always one step ahead of everyone.

As with the first book it’s a very entertaining mix, even if it does take a little longer than it needs to in order to reach its destination.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Last Time?

Tonight's game may have been the last Sacramento Kings game I ever see in person. We have one more ticket, but I suspect that work obligations will keep me from going.

But if it was the last game, at least we went out in style, with a 129-119 win over the Golden State Warriors that felt very reminiscent of a game from the 1980s.

It was a good crowd, it was an exciting game, and it was fun. And if it was the last one, then here's to 26 years of good memories.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Drive-By Truckers Score With "Go Go Boots"

Reportedly it was recorded at or around the same time, but “Go Go Boots,” the new album by the Drive-By Truckers, sounds very little like its predecessor, “The Big To Do.” In and of itself, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, but it goes a long way towards demonstrating that the Truckers are a lot more versatile than some might expect, given their long history as a “southern band.”

It’s still amazing to me that I missed out on this band for so long – it was only a little over a year ago that I heard my first DBT album; now I own 8 and had the good fortune to see them live when I was in Chicago last year for a business trip. And after quite a few listens, there’s no doubt in my mind that the new album is better than the last, and in fact one of DBT’s best.

“The Big To Do” was a very good album, but after repeated listens there was little question that it petered out about ¾ of the way through. “Go Go Boots” is strong from first track to last – it’s more laid back in the playing, but the songwriting is as sharp as it’s ever been. Both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have a real knack for telling short stories and setting them to music, and they’re in fine form on “Go Go Boots.” For Hood, there are several triumphs. On “Ray’s Automatic Weapon,” he tells the story of a veteran who, 40 years later, is still haunted by nightmares:

Ray I got to tell you
You got to take that gun back

Cuz these things that I been shooting at are getting all too real

Don’t want to hurt nobody, but I keep on aiming closer

Don’t think that I can keep it feeling like I feel

And on “Used To Be A Cop,” Hood delves into the mind of another haunted soul:

I used to play football but I wasn’t big enough for college
But I passed the entrance exam, first try and on my way

The Police Academy gave me the only thing I was ever good at

But my temper and the shakes and they took that thing away

On both of these songs, the band plays at a mid-tempo pace, never overwhelming the story – and Hood takes his time telling it, almost as if he were sitting around a campfire in the dead of night. It’s a haunting, haunted sound.

Cooley’s gem is the wonderful “Pulaski,” which is one of those songs that sounds like a nice little up-tempo southern ditty, right up until the point that you start to focus on the words. It’s a story about the small town girl from Pulaski, Tennessee who went to seek her fortune in L.A., and with that one sentence alone, you’ve probably figured out how the story ends.

Good ideas always start with a full glass
And just breathing here can make a girl’s nose bleed

Dreams here live and die just like a stray dog on a dirt road somewhere in Tennessee

And in the last verse, the song reveals its kinship with Elvis Presley’s “Long Black Limousine”:

The storefronts all filled up with eyeballs
As the policemen clear out the street

For a line of cars with their headlights burning

Driving slow through Pulaski, Tennessee

Those aren’t the only highlights – there’s also Hood’s “The Thanksgiving Filter,” which just might be the best rock song written about that holiday; there’s Cooley’s “Cartoon Gold,” with the great line “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough”; there’s two strong Eddie Hinton covers, one sung by Hood and one by Shonna Tucker; and there’s “The Fireplace Poker,” a Hood morality tale which fits in very nicely with “The Dress He Made Her Wear” from the previous album.

That this is a great band is well established. Right now, “Go Go Boots” feels like a great album; one of their best.

Friday, March 11, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Everybody Disco!

The backlash against disco never made a whole lot of sense to me, and frankly it was difficult to think of it as anything but blatant racism. Because when you listen to a song like this one, how in the world could you say that this didn't fit right into the evolution of great rock and roll? Certainly something like "I Will Survive" fit better into that progression than, say, something like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And that's not intended as a hit on either of those groups; they both did stuff that I like a great deal.

And this video is a great artifact - roller disco, no less!

"I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor - the #1 song on this date in 1979.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Odd Feeling

So the Lakers are playing the Heat tonight, with the latter team in a free-fall that has generated some of the best sports stories in months. Tears after regular season losses! Superstars at loss to explain what is happening! A country rejoices!

The odd feeling I have is that I'm thinking that I'll be rooting for the Lakers tonight. It's been a long time since that happened.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Late Oscar Review

I missed this highly entertaining review of James Franco's performance as Oscar host by the always reliable Rob Sheffield:

He treated the Oscars like his own avant-garde conceptual art project, like the way he went on General Hospital for kicks and giggles. Like, what if an insanely pretty boy got up on TV in front of a billion people, and did nothing but smirk and squint and stare off into the distance and look embarrassed to be there? What if he barely said a word, just contemplating his own hotness and flashing his John-Mayer-post-lobotomy grin? What a bold statement on modern alienation! Like the tragic hero of Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, he stood trapped behind a mirror, unable to make human contact, cursed to face his own reflection alone.

Read the whole thing here. You'll also find some hilarious comments about Trent Reznor, Scarlett Johannson, and Billy Crystal.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Best Sticky Note Ever?


Which is another way of saying “I don’t really have time to write anything else right now.”

“Dancing Days,” Led Zeppelin

“Dancing Days,” Stone Temple Pilots

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Netflix Catchup

The last two Netflix Flix:

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kind of a mess, but a very entertaining one. Written and directed by Shane Black, who brought us the “Lethal Weapon” series (and, it should be noted, was in the original “Predator”). One way to describe the movie would be to call it a very off-beat Robert Crais novel. It’s very self aware, and constantly making fun of itself, and then suddenly there will be a few moments where it takes itself seriously. Overall, I’d have to say it works, largely because of Robert Downey Jr. in the lead and (especially) Val Kilmer in a great supporting role as a PI known as “Gay Perry.” It’s definitely the kind of movie where you need to hit pause before you head to the bathroom; otherwise, you’ll have no idea what’s going on by the time you get back.

In the Valley of Elah. I really liked this one. Directed by Paul Haggis, it tells the story of a father (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, who is simply magnificent) who is desperately trying to figure out, first, why his son went AWOL, and second, after his body is discovered, why he was murdered in gruesome fashion. The horror, the agony and the tragedy are etched in the lines of Jones’ face, as they are in the face of Susan Sarandon, the soldier’s mother. In the course of Jones’ investigation, nothing is as it seems, and after a while it seems that the entire U.S. Army is determined to keep him from the truth. Charlize Theron, playing a local cop who ultimately joins Jones in his quest, is outstanding (and, sans makeup, almost unrecognizable). The supporting cast, which includes the seemingly omnipresent James Franco, is outstanding, particularly Frances Fisher in a brief role as an over-the-hill topless waitress and Jason Patric as the Army Investigator – entirely professional, but never entirely helpful in Jones’ quest to find the truth about what happened to his son. But the movie belongs to Jones – and he once again proves that he is one of the great actors of our time.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Farewell Kings?

It now seems inevitable that the Sacramento Kings will be finding their way to Anaheim, sooner rather than later. Sacramento will join the likes of cities like Baltimore, Brooklyn and Seattle, all of whom have had sports franchises ripped from their midst for no particular reason other than avarice and greed. And even though I’ve held a share of a season ticket since the very first season, I’m close to the point of not really caring.

I’ve probably seen an average of 7 games per season since the beginning, which amounts to almost 200 games over the course of 26 years. In that time, I’ve had the honor of watching in person such great players as Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin MacHale, Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Shaq, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan…the list goes on an on.

It’s been a fun ride, full of memorable moments. If you’ve paid any attention at all to the NBA over the past quarter-century, you know that for years, the Kings were among the laughingstocks of the league. But even then, every game was an event, every game was a sellout. There was a brief period of respectability in the mid-1990s, led by the great Mitch Richmond (and I’m glad he got a ring, even if it was for the Lakers). But then they got awful again, and when the strike hit in 1999, our little group was on the verge on just giving up completely.

And then something wonderful happened. They signed Chris Webber, they drafted Peja Stojakovic, they signed Vlade Divac, they traded for Mike Bibby, and they gathered a supporting cast whose overall talent far exceeded the sum of their individual parts. I’ll never forget how much fun it was in the spring of 1999, attending a playoff game against the Utah Jazz. I remember saying to my dad, as we were having a little tailgate party in the parking lot, “It’s May, and we’re still playing!” And even though they lost that series, it was clear a new day had dawned. And that moment climaxed with the wonderful 2001-02 season. Since they did not win the championship I know I have no right to say this, but almost ten years later, there is still no doubt in my mind that they were the best team in the NBA that season.

But they couldn’t prove it, falling painfully short in an epic 7-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers. I think it was the single greatest NBA series of my lifetime. Every game was dramatic. The seventh game went to overtime, and it was only the fourth best game of the series. You had Game 6, which will forever live in infamy in Sacramento, where the Lakers mauled the Kings with impunity and were never called for it, and the Kings got whistled every time they breathed on the Lakers. You had Game 5, where Mike Bibby drained an unlikely three near the end of the game to send an entire region into a frenzy. And yes, you had Game 4, a game I had nightmares about for years, a dagger to the heart from Robert Horry that one could now say forever altered the course of a franchise. And so we lost.

And even though the next few years were great, it was never quite the same. They were always in the playoffs, but they never again advanced as far as they did during that magical season of 01-02. And in those seasons, they priced an entire generation of potential fans out of the arena. We have good tickets, and before you knew it, those $19.50 tickets were over $90 apiece. We could afford it, although we dropped down to 4 or 5 games a year, but I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of others could not. And the atmosphere inside the arena was never quite the same.

And when they got bad again, those fans never came back. Ticket prices have dropped quite a bit, but the arena is never full, and on many nights the fans appear disinterested. The magic is long gone. And the Maloof Brothers, whose primary talent appears to have had the luck to be born into a family with a lot of money, are ready to cash out, and move on to a city that has a nice arena.

The Maloofs deserve credit for what they achieved in Sacramento – they built a great team. But they did not build a great franchise, because that was already here. Essentially, they’ve ruined a great franchise, and when (if?) they leave, they will deserve the disdain directed at them by the fans of Sacramento, who have really done nothing wrong.

If they leave, I will shed no tears. I'll be sad, but I'll always have the memories. Memories of 26 years of games, sitting there with my dad, or my mom, or my brothers, or my wife, or my uncle, or my cousin, or my sons.

Friday, March 04, 2011

18 Guitars, A Piano, and One Voice - Jackson Browne, Solo and Acoustic

You keep it up, you try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
Never know the shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart

“In the Shape of a Heart”

To take the stage accompanied only by a guitar or a piano is a brave thing, and not something that every artist could get away with. Jackson Browne is such an artist, and he’s been doing this sort of thing for close to 50 years now. Never having seen him perform until last night, I can’t say this with any certainty, but I suspect that he’s gotten much better at it as the years have gone by. At this stage of his career, he’s a remarkably self-assured performer, one who is not afraid to hit the occasional bad note (it happens), and then make a self-deprecating joke about it.

Well, I've been up and down this highway
Far as my eyes can see
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me

No matter where I am
I can't help thinkin', I'm just a day away
Where I wanna be
Now I'm runnin' home, baby
Like a river to the sea

“Your Bright Baby Blues”

Ultimately, a solo acoustic show comes down to the quality of the songs, and on that score – well, all you really need to know is that Browne is in the Hall of Fame, and it’s largely on the basis of his songwriting. In the solo acoustic setting, Browne doesn’t try to reinvent his songs – it’s not like a Dylan concert where you might sit there listening to a song and think to yourself, “I know I’ve heard that…what is that song?...oh yeah, To Ramona!” (that actually happened to me once). From the first notes of each song, it is clear what you’re hearing. What Browne does in these shows amounts to an in-depth examination of each song – plumbing the depths of the emotions, plumbing the depths of the politics, and plumbing the depths of the humor.

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

“Running on Empty”

What becomes readily apparent over the course of the show is that Browne has never gotten tired of these songs – he sings them with vitality, and as if he had written them just the night before. And the setlist? I couldn’t have come up with a better one myself. He played nearly all of my all-time favorites: “Running on Empty,” “Late For The Sky,” “Sky Blue and Black,” “Your Bright Baby Blues,” and “In the Shape of a Heart.” There were old classics – “Farther On,” “For Everyman,” “For A Dancer.” There were newer songs – “The Barricades of Heaven,” “Going Down To Cuba,” and a brand new one, “If I Could Be Anywhere.” There was a great cover of a great Warren Zevon song, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” It was a wonderful mix, frequently interspersed with witty banter and heartfelt stories.

If you ever need holding
Call my name, I'll be there
If you ever need holding
And no holding back, I'll see you through
Sky, sky blue and black

“Sky Blue And Black”

It’s hard to identify one highlight from a night full of them, but if I had to pick just one it would be “Looking East,” which he absolutely killed on the guitar. It should be noted that he is really a hell of a guitar player, and on this song it resulted in a power even greater than that in the original, electric band version.

But whether it be on guitar or piano, Browne has absolutely mastered the solo acoustic format. And being one of rock’s great romantics, it’s a format that serves him and his songs well. If you have a chance to catch him, by all means do so.

American Top 40 Flashback - The Miracles

For some odd reason, I remember exactly where I was when I heard this song for the first time. It was December 7, 1975 and my dad and I were driving to Candlestick Park in San Francisco for a 49ers game. Another example of the strange things that I retain in my memory banks - just don't ask me what I ate for lunch yesterday.

This was probably the only notable moment for the non-Smokey version of the Miracles, but it was a great one. "Love Machine," the #1 song in the country this week in 1976.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Can Cookies Be Evil?

I am coming to believe that these cookies are the very manifestation of evil.

Think about it.

You know these cookies are not good for you. You know that, much in the same way George Carlin once described cocaine, they just make you want more cookies.

And yet, we buy them, year after year after year. We consume them greedily, and we want more.

Evil, I tell you. Evil.